WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Donald Trump “has sole authority to invoke the Insurrection Act” and “if needed, he will use it,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”
Esper added, “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
The 1807 federal law allows the president, in dire circumstances, to deploy military and federalized National Guard troops inside the country to suppress civil disorder, insurrection and rebellion.
Amid reports that the defense secretary’s remarks have angered the president and top White House officials, the press secretary was asked if Trump retains confidence in the key member of his Cabinet who runs the Pentagon.
“As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper,” McEnany replied. That tepid response will further add to speculation that the defense secretary could soon be asked by the president to resign.
In recent days, Trump has strongly advocated using National Guard units, which are generally under state – not federal – control except in the District of Columbia, to put a stop to acts of vandalism and looting in cities across the country.
Emphasizing “law and order,” the president has demanded that more governors use the guard units at their command. He has called governors “weak” for hesitating to order a National Guard response.
Defends Lafayette Park stroll
Trump is defending his stroll through Lafayette Park to a historic church where he held aloft a Bible just minutes after law enforcement violently cleared the path.
Trump’s actions Monday evening have been being harshly criticized by leaders of the Episcopal Church, including its presiding bishop, as well as prominent clergy of other Christian denominations.
"Most religious leaders loved it,” Trump claimed Wednesday. “Why wouldn't they love it? I'm standing in front of a church that went through trauma.”
Trump, in a Wednesday morning call-in chat to Fox News Radio, stated that the church, which dates to the early 19th century and has a long relationship with U.S. presidents, “received a very bad burning” during Sunday night vandalism in Washington.
A small fire in the basement of the church was quickly extinguished, according to the D.C. Fire Department.
"It was extremely important" for the president to walk to the church to "send a very powerful message we will not be overcome by looting," McEnany said.
Trump said no one had told him about the crowd of protesters along H Street Northwest, a block north of the White House, before he walked to the church.
“When I went, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, move them out.’ I didn’t know who was there,” Trump said on the radio program.
Attorney General William Barr “decided that morning to expand the perimeter,” McEnany told reporters.
When he witnessed later in the day that it had not been carried out, he ordered immediate action, McEnany said.
It is normal procedure for the Secret Service and local law enforcement to establish a cordon in areas prior to movements by any U.S. president.
Monday’s action, however, was unprecedented. Demonstrators and journalists were attacked. Chemical agents and rubber bullets were by police in riot gear, according to reporters and protesters.
McEnany denied the use of tear gas or such projectiles.
“The appropriate action was taken,” McEnany said, contending that protesters had begun throwing bricks and frozen water bottles at officers.
Clearing the park “was not a military decision, not a military action,” Esper told reporters Wednesday shortly after Trump’s remarks on radio.
National Guard troops were not involved in the firing of tear gas or rubber bullets at the protesters, Esper said during a Pentagon news conference.
Esper, who has been criticized for participating in what has been widely described as a political stunt, said he had not been informed before he accompanied Trump out of the White House gates that there would be such an event outside the church.
“I was not aware a photo-op was happening,” Esper said. “I do everything I can to stay apolitical.”
Esper also told reporters he does not support invoking powers that would allow the president to order the military into states to confront civil unrest.
Focused on New York City
Trump this week has been particularly focused on violence and looting in New York City.
“If they don’t get their act straightened out, I will solve it,” Trump said in Wednesday’s radio interview. “I’ll solve it fast.”
The president is expressing satisfaction with the enhanced deployment of federal law enforcement and the National Guard in Washington, D.C., during the past couple of nights.
For eight days and nights, tens of thousands of people have protested and marched, for the most part peacefully, nationwide. In recent nights, the looting has largely abated.
The demonstrations, many of them now in defiance of local curfews, began after the death of an African American man in Minneapolis. A white police officer held George Floyd face down on the street and pressed a knee against his neck for more than 8 minutes.
Four officers have been charged, and the medical examiner has ruled Floyd’s death a homicide.
Groups of protesters began converging Friday night in front of the White House, and media reports said that as demonstrators confronted police, Trump was taken to a bunker as a security precaution.
“I wasn’t down” in the bunker on Friday night, Trump said in the radio interview. “I went down during the day and I was there for a tiny short period of time, essentially to conduct an inspection,” which he said he has done several times in the past.
Asked by Fox News Radio program host Brian Kilmeade how racial injustice in America can be solved, the president replied it is a “sad problem” but he offered no specifics on a federal response.
“Police departments have to do better,” Trump said regarding distrust of law enforcement in the black community. “Everybody has to do better.”